De faciente librorum finis non est: a response to Fr. John Strickland.

I finally was able to listen to both of Fr. John Strickland’s responses to my review of his works published in Touchstone. A Journal of Mere Christianity. Fr. John’s responses are over two hours altogether, and you can find them here and here. I strongly suggest you take the time to listen to them before you read this, though you should also read the article from Touchstone. If for some reason you haven’t subscribed, or you can’t pull up the article, it’s only $19.95 for a year’s subscription, so you should pull the trigger. This will help keep me sharp as you read and interact with my blog post (which I must tell you, is not short). Having done that, let us proceed. 

Fr. John in his two volumes gives detailed knowledge about a great many things in general, and a large number of things in particular, and I liked especially his first volume. Since the vast bulk of what I had to say treated the second volume, that is where I focused my review: were my whole body healthy, but I had gangrene in my thumb, the thumb is the vitally urgent matter. This is an analogy; I am not saying Fr. Strickland’s second volume is gangrenous.

Before we begin, as I said in my review, we owe Fr. John gratitude for this work. There is much there of benefit, and much worth reading. The non-specialist and curious Christian will find things to help in understanding our faith’s past, especially in the first volume. Specialists will not find as much, for one of the great problems with a 700 page, two-volume work that covers 1600 years is necessarily the cursory way things will be treated. And this brings me to a second note of gratitude, one all of us should keep in mind: scholarship is not done in a vacuum, and before we hit “send” to an editor, especially of a book manuscript, we should make sure that we’ve had multiple sets of eyes looking at it. This is just basic scholarly protocol. I know that Fr. John sent his section on 1054 to Prof. Anthony Kaldellis for review, who had previously published on this question. This should be an example to all. Fr. John, alas, as best I can tell, was not so quick with other parts of his volumes, but I could be completely wrong.

My past as an author has seen me pass things along to various authors, from chapters, to whole books, to even conference papers and blog posts.

One of my happiest memories from 16th Century Studies Conference was a paper given by Jon Balserak on the question of Calvin’s thoughts on himself as a prophet. As Jon organized the panel in which this paper was given, he got to pick who the respondent should be, and this was none other than Max Engammare, director at Libraire Droz, who oversees the remains of Calvin’s library in Geneva, and is the past president of the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Instituts pour l’Étude de la Renaissance. Jon certainly knows Calvin (far better than I), so why ask Max to be the critic of his paper? Jon wanted another set of eyes, and he knew that Max disagreed with him on this question of Calvin as prophet. In short, Jon the expert wanted another expert who could see what he did not.

This need is an inevitability. As concerns my essay here, I know a lot about all of the periods Fr. John covered because I started as a medievalist (Professor Aristeides Papadakis was my M.A. advisor), and then in the last year of my PhD studies I switched to Renaissance and Reformation. Thus, I have a great handle on a great many things pertaining to this period, but I’d be foolish to think of myself as a specialist in most of the areas I studied as a grad student and since. I know well the world of Humanism beginning with Petrarch. I know Reformation thought and theology, including politics (and have written on the same in several places). But even with the Reformation, while I could become conversant with any area in short order, I am not a scholar of the Jesuits, nor of Luther’s first critics, nor of the history of the Church in Italy or Spain. I am really not a Luther scholar, though I know a lot about him. As it is, though I have published more than just my book on him, I am really just a junior Calvin scholar

I know a great deal about the Latin middle ages, and certainly of Byzantium. When I teach them, I have little to struggle with. I am fairly well caught up on the bibliography in both subjects (that doesn’t mean I have read everything). But to think myself ready now to publish on anything that touches directly the broad world of the Byzantine empire and the Latin middle ages would really be unwise on my part, and one with nothing but a slender tether to reality. My Latin is certainly ready (the slender tether), but it would take me at least three weeks (I know this from experience) buried in a library to get my Greek up to fighting trim to read Michael Psellus, Michael Attaleiates, Leo the Deacon, or John Skylitzes with the precision and swiftness this calls for (and this is not the proficiency of a translator such as Prof. Kaldellis). It would take me several more months again to bury myself in all the secondary literature. And even then, I am just starting.

Before I published my book on Calvin, multiple sets of eyes saw it, from some of North America’s and Europe’s most prominent Calvin scholars, to Lutheran eyes on Joachim Westphal, and always Catholic eyes as regards other items. This was on a very narrow subject that concerned ideas and events of less than 40 years, but I did this because I am not up to the challenge alone.

Fr. John gives us an example of why we shouldn’t strike out on our own in such journies. He has done remarkable work, but work that could have been done even better. If you are going to enter the realm and kingdom of the polemical, you need to do your homework, and to do it on multiple levels, even when covering just a short span of years or a narrow subject. Mutliple subjects over centuries? Caveat lector.

Perhaps, in charity, Fr. John would brush all of these thoughts and concerns aside, that particulars are not necessarily germane to what he writes, and he said as much in an email to me, copied to Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick. I hope to show why this cannot be a negligible concern to a project such as Fr. John’s.

Also before we begin, Fr. John on the whole was measured in his podcasts, but still sought to be forceful in defending his work. I would expect nothing less. He put a lot of effort into these two volumes, and there is a lot, and I mean a lot of good information in his work (and again, much more in the first volume). His items on hesychasm in the second volume are quite good, and while he states the fact that the controversy touched all of Byzantine society, he could have made some excellent points about how the whole controversy became wrapped up with the civil war that actually was the real beginning of the end for the empire {see D. M. Nicol, The Last Centuries of Byzantium, 1261-1453 (Cambridge U. Press, 1993), and Aristeides Papadakis, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy, in collaboration with Fr. John Meyendorff (St. Vlad’s Seminary Press, 1994)}.

As for the structure of my Touchstone review and how much attention I paid the parts of his work, after my introduction warning about the dangers posed in constructing and conceptualizing grand narratives, or metanarratives, to use Fr. John’s word to me (I will discuss the difference at the end), I spent almost 300 words in praise of Fr. John’s works. This wasn’t a blowing of smoke, or “a begging of poverty,” but my thoughts that there was much to praise. In most of the reviews I’ve written (over 60 in various journals, though most in The Sixteenth Century Journal) this would have been a third of the review, and given that I had little to address in the first volume, beyond to commend it and to set out what Fr. John hoped to accomplish in his enterprise, the review called for little else. My space was limited and I needed to get to what I had to say in the words left to me.

Some sine quibus non for a historian
A historian needs also be familiar with the history of ideas, publishing, manuscript transmission, and lastly, he needs to use the most recent sources and studies on any question. This is not to say that more recent historians are better than older ones, in many cases they are not; nor that older ones should be neglected, but the recent historians do have the benefit of all the research available that older ones, even if just one or two generation removed, did not. Were someone to begin a study of the Renaissance without having taken measure of Burckhardt (a worthy historian, “often referenced and seldom read,” as I once noted to Fr. John Behr, a multiple great nephew of Burckhardt), they would be at a great disadvantage, a child walking in on a conversation. But were they to read Burkchardt and think they understand the Renaissance, they would be as foolish as someone reading Burckhardt’s friend’s The Genealogy of Morality and thinking they understood Christian moral teaching and its genesis.


Podcast primus: duabus curis
I think Fr. John’s first podcast response can be summarized, in the first instance, in Fr. John saying I said one thing about a subject I didn’t say (Cyril is not in favor of grand narratives) and then of criticizing me for what I didn’t say. In connection with this, he said that I was driven by a love of monographs, a propensity that led me to miss grand narratives. Moreover, as he was constructing a metanarrative, that my criticisms didn’t address what his metanarrative was doing.

I never discounted grand narratives as a rule (that is a sweeping, decades-long or even centuries-long account driven by one or more unifying principles), but rather warned that to write such things was perilous, and that if we constructed our discourse incommensurate with reality, we write in vain. I am happy to be instructed in how I could have been plainer, and perhaps someone can explain what else I should have written to say that narratives are not tout court bad history. I even state that institutional and constitutional narratives (and by constitutional, I don’t mean merely paper documents) are places that lend themselves to fruitful pursuit. I will certainly touch this toward the end of my essay, but should note, there is not only a very good reason to scrutinize historical particulars and to become uneasy when they are not rightly described, but for a historian, every good reason to be nervous.

Secondly, by summary, Fr. John thought I should have spent much more time on his first volume, and that I only focused on the second. This has more than a color of truth to it, though again, at the beginning of my review I addressed his larger theme, which he took up in his first volume. I noted his emphasis on a paradisiacal culture (again, introduced in the first volume), and I commended him on both these. I commended also his handling of the filioque controversy, which appeared largely in the first volume.

Podcast primus: de monographarum amicitia
Lastly in the first podcast, Fr. John said I was given too much to monographs, and was a “monographite (monographyte?)” which is a malady ill-suited to the questions of writing large narratives and of constructing a metanarrative .           

Well, yes. I am guilty of this propensity to read lots of books.           

I love articles too! I have files and files of them.

I have owned probably 7,000 monographs in my time (I have whittled things down to about 3,800 volumes at present, not counting ebooks, or PDFs of volumes that I have). They are the seeds, saplings, roots, trunks, and boughs of the world of ideas. Many are old books, containing the great theologies and thought of the past (e.g., Plato, St. Athanasius) and some more modern (e.g., Calvin and Stapleton, Montaigne and Pascal, Hobbes and Montesquieu). Many of them are older books which speak to where our modern ideas have sprung (e.g, Bury and Burkhardt) and some a little more recent which have set the context of our present debates (Runciman and Ullman, Elton and Kantorowicz). Many are more recent (within the last 20 years), addressing events and ideas and their histories (Treadgold, Hankins, Skinner, Cranz, Kelly, inter multos alios). My library is a mix of them, and I have benefitted from all.

I have spent uncounted weeks (months?) in libraries. I have had the happy fortune to spend days on end at the Bodleian Library in Oxford university (what would be the equivalent of two terms there), just sitting for 10-14 hours at a time reading. I have been the guest at Magdalene College, Oxford’s old library for days at a time as well. The same is true of Rutgers Alexander Library, Princeton’s Firestone Library, the Folger-Shakespeare library, and of many more. Sitting with a few books each day and pouring over them, notebook open and pencil in hand, apart from the services of the Church, or time with friends and family, not even fishing holds up to this.

{As a short digression, as a writer and historian, I have perhaps benefitted from none of the above books and articles more than from a series of addresses by R. W. Southern, delivered upon his tenure as president of the Royal Historical Society, and in particular the first one on the writing of history from Einhard to Geoffrey of Monmouth. I have always assigned this essay, whenever I taught historiography, to my students. It is a piece of history, and a great exemplar of what history writing should look like. I have actually modeled a number of my own essays’s structure after it.}

Without these books and libraries, my historical mind runs the great danger of the mental equivalent of the blue screen of death, only one I actually wouldn’t see, but is seen by others. Historians, while being artists (one of the arguments and assertions in the above referenced set of essays by R. W. Southern), are not artists in the sense of F. Scott Fitzgerald, that we can hold two mutually opposing opinions at once and still operate. We live in a world of “yes, but.” Or, “there is much still to think about on this matter.” To not think this way is what bring the Blue Screen of Death, as facts contradict our narrative, however tight and small, and if we can’t adjust for contradictions, or we just ignore them, our historical operating system shuts down, even if we ourselves don’t realize it.

All historians are limited, and limited exactly by the sources and scholarship with which they live.

Podcast secundus: quattor curis, inter alia
As regards Fr. John’s second podcast, I shall first address the matters he thinks I got wrong in my review with respect to facts. He notes four with which he agrees that he was wrong, but then wishes to contend on several others. Second, I shall address a great lacunae in Fr. John’s work (having to do with modern monographs) pertaining to Thomism; and then also in that section what I meant when I wrote about his poverty of sources, and this will concern also Fr. John’s use of various monographs. And third, I shall address the question of narrative and metanarrative, and Fr. John’s in particular. And so to the queastiones, sed contra.

Podcast secundus: quaestio prima, concilliarissimus post Constantiam
Fr. John takes exception to my pointing out his statement (to quote), “In the aftermath of Constance, a movement arose that assigned ultimate earthly authority not the pope, or even to the cardinals, but to the entire Church (Age of Division, p. 233).” My quibble was with this erroneous statement and thus my notation. He had mentioned conciliarism as existing before Constance, and commented on this, but my point was not that he was wrong about concilirism per se, but that he makes an error of fact, one of the “things that Fr. Strickland gets wrong.” I did nothing else.

Podcast secundus: quaestio dua, de Urbano sixto
The Papacy had been some seventy years absent from Rome at its digs in Avignon. Under pressure from numerous corners, not the least of which were the mystic Catherine of Siena, and Brigetta of Sweden, Gregory XI returned to Rome in 1377. When he died in Rome an extraordinary struggle ensued over the matter of his successor, for according to canon law, where a pope dies, there the conclave is to be held for his successor. There would be no return to Avignon for the conclave. The Roman people had the city in an uproar, clamor­ing for a Roman, or at least an Italian Pope.

The French had dominated the Papacy and the papal court for over 100 years, and eleven of the sixteen car­dinals present were French. Pressed close by the protests, the demonst­rations went from vocal protests to vio­lent, with the barricades to fend off the mob ultimately proving ineffectual (see Hubert Jedin & John Dolan, Handbook of Church History. Vol. IV: From the High Middle Ages to the Eve of the Reformation. Translator Anselm Biggs. New York: Herder & Herder, 1970, pp. 401-406). In an effort to appease the crowd the cardinals, who actually wished for another French Pope, gave evasive and duplicitous replies. Final­ly the cardi­nals, on 7 April 1378, in despera­tion, for the Roman people had stormed the con­clave, placed the aged Italian, cardinal Tebaldeschi before the people. The crowd quickly took him to the high altar of the chapel and had him enthroned as Pope.

The cardinals, all 16 fled. There had been a vote for an Italian, the archbishop of Bari, Bartolomeo Prignano, but the votes were not enough to confirm him, and thus why he wasn’t presented as pope. When the commotion ended twelve cardinals returned to the Vatican to complete the election, and took part in Prignano’s enthronement as Urban VI. Prignano had been serving as chancellor of the curia in Avignon, and was not an unknown quantity. This election was carried out with the complete concurrence of all the French cardinals.

But within days word from Rome was that the election was suspect, and official letters sent by the cardinals to Avignon and other parties were accompanied with secret correspondences expressing caution in how one was to view the election. The cardinals waited to see if defects in the election (duress) could be overcome by the responsible behavior of the new Pope. But instead of acceding to the cardinals’ demands, Urban VI initiated a series of reforms to strip the cardinals of their power, launched tirades against the cardinals and curial officials, insulted nobility then present in Rome, and threatened to appoint numerous Italians to the college of cardinals that would swamp the power of the French.

There have been recent studies of the election, and it certainly seems to be the case that Urban VI’s election was at the least irregular, and that the election was carried out by the cardinals vi coacti. This, however, is not the consensus, and one can consult Jedin’s Handbuch or Brian Tierney’s “Hermeneutics and History: The Problem of Haec Sancta,” in Church Law and Constitutional Thought in the Middle Ages, (Cambridge: Variorum Reprints, 1979) 355-370 in which Tierney discusses the election of Urban VI and the defense of its regularity by the Jesuit historian Joseph Gill.

Those cardinals who could left Rome, and called on the Pope to resign. When their summons for him to come to them at Agnani was ignored, the defectors on 20 September elected Robert of Geneva, who was enthroned on 31 October as Clement VII. The three Italian cardinals, whom Fr. Strickland identifies as having carried the day in electing Urban VI, were at Agnani, acceded to Clement VII’s election, and went with him back to Avignon, along with the vast bulk of the papal court. Clement gave instruc­tions for the remainder of the cardinals in Rome to follow, taking what they could.

It was never a question that Italian cardinals and not the French elected Urban VI. Urban VI could not have been elected but for the concurrence of the French cardinals. For a brief history of this, one can simply look up J. N. D. Kelly’s The Oxford Dictionary of the Popes (OUP, 1986), as Jedin is generally only to be found at research university libraries.

Podcast secundus: quaestio tres, de Lanfranci dialecta
Next Fr. John contends with my take on Lanfranc and Berengar, though Lanfranc in particular.

To recap: Fr. John writes that Lanfranc used dialectic and Aristotle’s categories to argue against Berengar:

(Berengar) questioned an earlier Frankish theologian’s claim that the consecrated Body of  Christ is one and the same as his deified body in heaven. Lanfranc challenged this using the logic of Aristotle. Lanfranc seized on his {Aristotle’s, GWJ} logical distinction between a thing’s “accidents” and its “substance” to claim that while the consecrated Eucharist seemed to remain bread according to its accidents, it had within the liturgy been transformed in substance in the Body of Christ (Age of Division, 153).

Fr. John then went on to claim at the end of the next paragraph that the Roman synod endorsed “Lanfranc’s Aristotelian rationalism. As a result, the term ‘transubstantiation, never used before for the Eucharist, entered the theological vocabulary of the West (154).”

Here’s what I wrote about this:

Fr. Strickland maintains that Lanfranc used logic to make his point about the distinction between “substance” and “accidents” in the Eucharist, relying for these distinctions on Aristotle. Fr. Strickland ends his discussion on the matter by saying that it resulted in the word “transubstantiation” entering the Latin theological vocabulary.

Yet not Lanfranc but Berengar used dialectics to show that the substance of bread remains in the Eucharist, and that to it is added the substance of the risen Christ. Lanfranc objected to this, declining not from the use of reason per se, but its application to our understanding of the mysteries. Lanfranc repudiated the use of reason in matters of faith, explicitly claiming he’d rather be a poor beggar holding to the bare words of Scripture than depend upon reason to bolster his faith. The episode of Lanfranc and Berengar speaks to Fr. Strickland’s poverty of sources, as his information for this, linked in a footnote, is Prof. John Baldwin’s The Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, an introductory book of scarcely 120 pages wherein the Berengar controversy is but a minor episode. Baldwin seemingly had not read Lanfranc’s De corpore et sanguine Domini, for Lanfranc never used the word “accidents” in it. By contrast, the Anglo-Catholic Oxford don H. E. J. Cowdrey authored a fine study of Lanfranc that points out that Berengar was the dialectician, a point for which Lanfranc attacked him. Lastly, the word “transubstantiation” first appeared in 1167, not in the mid-eleventh century.

Fr. Strickland, wishing to show I was wrong about Lanfranc, cites R. W. Southern’s outstanding biography of Anselm, Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge University Press, 1990) and specifically pages 48-49 where Southern asserts that Lanfranc saw Aristotle’s newly translated Categories as a way to give voice to his own Eucharistic doctrine. Southern sets out that Lanfranc used Aristotle, and how Aristotle could have undergirded Lanfranc’s assertions on the change in the elements into the body and blood of our Lord.

The whole sequence in Fr. John’s podcast would seem quite devastating were what I criticized in Fr. John was that Lanfranc in any way used or borrowed or appropriated “Aristotelian” concepts.

Yet this isn’t what I said in my review.

First, this citation from Southern says more than what Fr. John wants, as it doesn’t address the matter that Lanfranc nowhere ever used the explicit terms of Aristotle, never cited Aristotle, and didn’t employ the terms of Aristotle’s categories, which Southern himself admits! He acknowledges that though everything looks like Aristotle, nonetheless, Lanfranc didn’t use the language.

 Southern writes “It may reasonably be asked why, if Lanfranc was using Aristotelian categories, he should have wished to conceal his dependence on Aristotle. A definitive answer to this question cannot be given, but several possibilities may be suggested (Anslem, p. 50).” Southern then lists them, but never hits on the obvious: Lanfranc used such words as approximate Aristotle, but not Aristotle himself. Lanfranc saw no contradiction in using them, even if materially the same, since for him they neither define nor set the contours of faith. They were ways to explain, but always to Lanfranc, ratio was not the equal of living faith.

 Second, and to my point, in his De corpore et sanguine domini Lanfranc makes clear that our Lord’s presence in the Eucharistic was a mystery known but by faith which was health to him who believes, but useless to the one who sought understanding by other means {Mysterium fidei credi salubriter potest, vestigari utiliter non potest. (X. Mignae Patrologia Latina, 150 421D)}; and that however the change is effected in the elements, the just man, the one who lives by faith ought not by arguments to seek it, nor through reason to hope to comprehend it {Quanammodo panis efficiatur caro vinumque converiatur in sanguinem, utriusque essentialiter mutata natura, justus, qui ex fide vivit, scrutari argumentis et concipere ratio non quaerit. (XVII Mignae Patrologia Latina, 150 427A)}

I never wrote that Lanfranc doesn’t use Aristotle, though I’d be at pains to say he explicitly cites him, as opposed just to using common phrases that all in the west were then using, and that he used dialectic as all used dialectic. What I do say is that Lanfranc did not use dialectic as a means to define the Faith, even if he used it to explain and describe it, and that is a far, far different thing. Lanfranc himself is explicit on this point. That’s what my citations above touch; that’s why I cite Lanfranc and appeal to his most recent biographer, H. E. J. Cowdrey.

What’s more, it’s why both a knowledge of languages and monographs are necessary.

Third, and to emphasize the point: that Lanfranc used dialectic is a given, and to quote Cowdrey, “With their different appraisals of the role of dialectic in establishing and securing Christian teaching, Lanfranc and Berengar were arguing at cross purposes. Lanfranc was taking his stand upon what he regarded as the firm and given authority of the past; Berengar was feeling his way, however tentatively, towards the inquiring scholasticism of the future (Lanfranc: Scholar, Monk, and Archbishop (Oxford, 2003), 96).”

I shall return to dialectic and Lanfranc directly.

Podcast secundus: quaestio quattor, Thesenanschlag
One of my assertions that Fr. John addressed is that “Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church door on October 31, 1517 (a long-forsaken fiction).” One could argue that I gilded the lily with the term “long-forsaken” as opposed to just “forsaken,” but I will yield to Peter Marshall (Professor of History at Warwick University, DPhil Oxford, Fellow of the British Academy, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society) who, in his 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Protestant Reformation (Oxford University Press, 2017) wrote

This is not a new revelation, that it didn’t happen. It is now over fifty years since Erwin Iserloh, a German Catholic historian and theologian, first suggested that the historical evidence argues strongly against any Thesenanschlag {theses nailing or posting. GWJ} taking place on 31 October 1517. His assertions prompted a lively row among scholars in the 1960s (revisited in Chapter 5) and the evidence for and against a theses-posting on the Eve of All Saints 1517 has been regularly picked over and picked apart ever since. I review the evidence, for and against, in the first two chapters of this book. Even in advance of the findings of that review it can, categorically, be stated that the Thesenanschlag is a myth (p. 13, my emphasis).

Indeed, the whole of Marshall’s book is about the history and development of this myth.

Likewise, Richard Rex in his The Making of Martin Luther (Princeton University Press, 2017) spends a whole chapter on this. (Richard is the quondam Head of the Divinity faculty at Cambridge; Professor of Reformation History; Polkinghorne Fellow in Theology and Religious Studies at Queens’ College, Cambridge; and Deputy Head of the School of Arts and Humanities, University of Cambridge.)

Richard actually begins his work (very much a theology of Luther) by noting

Bizarrely, there is almost no reliable evidence for this well-known story—though there were ninety-five theses. There is no credible evidence that Luther actually went and nailed them to the church door that day, and every reason to believe that he did not. Not that nailing theses or other papers to a church door was in any sense a bold or unconventional act. Church doors often served as notice boards, especially in university towns. For example, a few years later, the excommunication of Martin Luther was nailed to the door of Great Saint Mary’s, the university church in Cambridge (and someone promptly scrawled some graffiti on it, though that is another story). But, as was first pointed out long ago by Erwin Iserloh, there is no evidence that any disputation on the theses took place in Wittenberg that day, nor that any was planned in the immediate future. There would therefore have been no point in nailing them up on the notice board. Luther himself never refers to such an episode, and there is simply no mention of this story anywhere until after his death. It has all the hallmarks of myth (Rex, pp. 1-2).

Fr. John contends that this is not such a cut-and-dried case, and cites the Reformed theologian and historian Heiko Oberman’s fine 1982 theological reflection Luther: Man between God and the Devil  (Luther: Mensch zwischen Gott und Teufel. Berlin: Severin und Seidler Verlag. Yale U. Press trans. 1989) to justify his appropriation of the castle church door story, and to say that I am wrong and likewise the review wrong.

My point quite frankly was that this is not held now, in the year of our Lord 2021. Do some still hold it? Sure, but as Marshall points out (though without reference to Oberman), that it was the minority report even in the 60s. This was a full decade before Oberman penned his book, which research itself is now almost 40 years old.

Certainly some do hold this, but even they admit that there are very real issues in their holding the affirmative. First, Luther not only never mentions the incident, but actually puts the whole idea of broadly distributing the theses into the subjunctive (ederem), that is, when he had written them up, this was something he could have done, but didn’t. Moreover, had he done so, according to a 1508 statute of the university, theses posted for debate were to be placed on all the church doors of the town, and not just at one. Lastly here, there was never a disputation, never one planned, and the very purpose for the posting of them never happened, nor was considered. This is seconded by Luther’s 5 November 1518 letter to his price, the imperial elector, Frederick (the Wise) of Saxony, wherein Luther told his prince some people were saying that the initiative for Luther’s action came from Frederick, but “in fact no one knew of it, not even among my closest friends, except the most Reverend Lord Archbishop of Magdeburg {Albrecht of Mainz}, and Hieronymus, Lord Bishop of Brandenburg,” and that he had “humbly and respectfully notified them before initiating the disputation.”

Heinz Schilling in his 2012 biography gives the affirmative to the theses being placed on the door, but said Luther didn’t do it, but the university “beadle” did (this is a translation from the German, and I don’t have the original in front of me, just the translation: my thanks to Jon Balserak for reminding me of this). Schilling notes that the episode was in doubt, but recent findings seem to give the affirmative weight. Schilling seems to be alluding to the marginalia of one Georg Rörer, whose recollections, as Marshall shows, are inconsistent, and based on Melanchthon’s note in the 1546 edition of Luther’s works (where the story seems to have begun). Thus, the evidence for the theses nailing occurs after Luther’s death, none before. In all of Luther’s recollections, it is of writing about indulgences, and not disputing about them. In one reference he notes that his writing about them came “after All Saints Day.”

There were certainly 95 theses, and they were certainly sent to archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg (by 1518 a cardinal). It was only in the coming months that Albrecht sends them to Rome, and it is only then that the whole affair took off, really at the beginning of 1518, as Luther then started disseminating them. Neither Luther’s opponents nor his friends mention the incident of a disputation in the coming months, and indeed never do so prior to his death. No one in Wittenberg in 1517 ever mentions them. Now, we could say this doesn’t prove that Luther didn’t do it, but if I said there’s an invisible cat on my office chair (to use C. S. Lewis’s analogy), that can’t be disproved either. For a full treatment of this, I commend the above mentioned books by Peter Marshall and Richard Rex.

Curiae ab aliis, unde Protestantes.
Fr. John in an email (in the email mentioned above) challenged me for writing that Protestants were called Protestants because they protested against the Catholic church. But, he says . . . well, in fact, it doesn’t matter what he says, for the simple matter is that Protestant was a political term, and only assumed its modern form as identifying those heirs of the Reformation years later. The word appeared in English essentially as identifying the Lutheran princes and their leagues, and when first used by Thomas Becon in a religious sense, differentiated not a mass of evangelicals over against Catholics, but explicitly denoted the Lutherans as opposed to the Anabaptists and the Sacramentarians (i.e., the Reformed or Calvinists).

Multae curae naturae theologicae historicaeque

a. Ressourcement and the Scholastics
And so dear reader, those who have made it this far, I come to the second part of my response. In the second half of Fr. Strickland’s second podcast he noted that he really didn’t know the state of the last 100 years of research on Thomas Aquinas. I cannot fault him too harshly for this. Wading into what at times seems a maelstrom of controversies and monographs is quite daunting. But if we are going to lay so much of what is wrong with our world at the feet of those whom we say place reason above faith, logic and Aristotle above revelation, would we not be well served to see if this is the actual case? All sorts of names come at us, de Lubac, Daniélou, Bouyer, von Balthasar, Rahner (both Hugo and Karl), and Gilson as well as their modern commentators and interlocutors such as Frs. Fergus Ker and Aidan Nichols, and then there are the academics such as Rene Barnes and Wayne Hankey. The list is quite long of people to read on this issue. Nonetheless, the reading is fascinating, and I think myself a far better historian for having taken the time to wade into it. I was once urged by Fr. Matthew Baker of blessed memory to write something on what we Orthodox could gain from reading these men. They were certainly read and known by such as Fr. Florovsky and Nicholas Lossky (Gilson was Lossky’s thesis director at Paris).

I should note also, that even those who take exception with the nouvelle théologie in particulars are quite in agreement that Thomas never subordinated the faith to Aristotle or to dialectics. Further, our natural state was always ordered to God, even if just contemplating Him in His creation, even without any hope of the ultimate beatitude in the life in the Holy Trinity. Yet even from creation, we were capable of divinity (capax Dei), and so were always fit for divinization, ordered to a place higher than the angels. For a discussion touching this, see Fr. Aidan Nichols, Discovering Aquinas. An Introduction to His Life, Work, and Influence. Eerdmans, 2002.

I bring up the nouvelle théologie and those who have interacted with them for an important reason. Fr. John sees the Gregorians and Scholastics and the reaction to them (the Renaissance and Reformation) as the origins, unwittingly or no, of modern secularism. This I think both wrongheaded and completely uncharitable, especially in light of such as de Lubac’s emphasis on the supernatural quality of the nature of man, an emphasis he makes in an explicit challenge to our unnatural, secular world. We’d do far better in our quest for seculalrism to look at the rise of unbelief that came out of the Pyrrhonism of seventeenth-century France than anywhere else (see Michael J Buckley, S.J., At the Origins of Modern Atheism. Yale U. Press, 1987; Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle. Oxford U. Press, 2003 {I first read this as T.H.o.S.from Erasmus to Spinoza, 1987; and as we are on the nouvelle théologie, I would be remiss in not mentioning as well Henri cardinal de Lubac’s brilliant The Drama of Atheistic Humanism, as the two chapters on Nietzsche are gold}).

I have already addressed this narrative in a long-form review published in Christian Bioethics (an Oxford U. Press Journal, edited by Prof. Mark Cherry) on Reader Herman Tristram Engelhardt’s After God (Crestwood: St. Vlad’s, 2017). I won’t rehash what I said there, but Reader Herman of blessed memory had a great line on the disease that beset our modern world, which to him came from the Enlightenment, springing especially from Kant and Hegel. Reader Herman, besides being a medical doctor was also a PhD in philosophy, and he taught Rice university’s graduate philosophy seminars on Hegel and Kant, so he knew of what he spoke. But he repeatedly cast the origins of this declension upon scholasticism, identifying this with an emphasis on reason at the expense of faith. This same message rings throughout Fr. John’s work.

I once thought this way, and had all sorts of good reasons to do so. One of them was that Luther and the other Reformers had all said this (or so I was often told), and I was taught that Aristotle was a name to fear, a name inimical to faith. What I didn’t realize is that Luther said this because of his nominalism and disdain for Aristotle There has been some very good work done on this, especially by F. Edward Cranz, though others, such as Oberman have as well show the link between the nominalist and voluntarist tradition of the late medievals and Protestant doctrines of justification (see especially Oberman’s Harvest of Medieval Theology, and his The Dawn of the Reformation. A lot of this is repeated in Alister McGrath’s The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation). Reader Herman’s narrative fortunately didn’t depend on his assertion that Hegel and Kant only came about because of Thomas, but this seems exactly to be the case with Fr. John. His idea of a grand “metanarrative” that shows the west’s declension from the metamorphological and paradisiacal culture of the ancient Church as what has ultimately led us to this point in history, falls apart when one realizes that the history he presents in this regard has at best a tenuous relation with the facts on the ground.

Anselm did not invert St. Augustine. Thomas did not radically separate grace and nature. The emphasis of de Lubac was to show that the contrary obtains, even to the point that he was called a Pelagian, but played the great trump card of saying this was never a question for the Greek fathers, using as the source on this point Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. The scholastics were not the only game in town in the middle ages, and they were certainly not the summum bonum of Catholic theology, the whole argument of Daniélou, though certainly joined in his assessment by Bouyer and Hugo Rahner, as well as by de Lubac.

If we haven’t considered what these men have said about the scholastics and scholasticism, then we should refrain from writing and talking about Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury until we have.

b. Paupertas fontium
And this at last gets to what I meant by the poverty of Fr. John’s sources. This has nothing to do with what Fr. John has read, which all seem rather good things from his footnotes. Nor does it have to do with whether Fr. John lacks the intellectual ability for this effort, for he obviously has it.

This has to do with the consequences of Fr. John being a stranger in a strange land, and nothing more. If I have just arrived in Paris, I have no idea where to get a good meal, an adequate meal, or a really great meal. My cabby may know, but he may be completely innocent of this, and I would never know that (at least not until I bit into my meal). This situation would be compounded by the fact that my spoken French is miserable. What is more, all the books I have read about the dining scene in Paris are at least 50 years old. Also, I am not helped by my knowledge of Parisian street names coming from maps now out of date. This is what I meant by Fr. Strickland’s poverty of sources.

Fr. Strickland often used texts long ago rendered dated, often even by their own authors, e.g., Gerd Tellenbach’s Church, State, and Christian Society in the Time of the Investiture Contest (Leipzig, 1936), a work both updated and superseded by Prof. Tellenbach himself in his The Church in Western Europe from the Tenth to the Early Twelfth Century (Cambridge, 1993). Numerous others could be cited, including ones that interested people should still read, such as anything by the English Catholic historian Christopher Dawson. Dawson passed away in 1970, and the last of his works appeared in the 60s While that is within my lifetime, a lot happens in 55 years. Dawson was fantastic at the narrative, including the grand narrative dear to Fr. John, and he did it well. Learned in all the necessary languages, one would benefit no end from his scholarship. I have.

This brings me to one of my main thoughts on poverty of sources.

A problem with using dated sources is that they can skew our readings of more modern ones. Fr. Strickland gives in both Volume I (partially) and Volume II (more fully) a description of what was known as the proprietary church system, a system where many monasteries, parish churches, and even some bishoprics, fell under the administrative control of the nobility, even with some nobility having rights to appoint the clergy, and often to the abuse of the Church (“Hmm, what am I going to do with my fourth son with the club foot? He’ll never be a knight. Ahh, the monastery of Corbie needs an abbot!”).

Fr. Strickland discussed how this appalling reality fed into the Gregorian Reforms of the eleventh century, and with them the Investiture Contest. All true, and a key aspect of his book, for he sees in the Gregorian Reforms a clear breach of the Papacy with its past, and a real step in its schism with the Orthodox Church. But he rather misunderstands what the proprietary church system actually was, and in turn what the Gregorian Reforms and the Investiture Controversy were all about.

Fr. John’s description of the proprietary church looks much like what one finds at the beginning of Chapter VII of Christopher Dawson’s Religion and the Rise of the Western Culture:

The breakdown of the Carolingian Empire and the disintegration of the authority of the state under the combined influence of barbarian invasion and feudal anarchy led to a similar crisis in the life of the Church. It was not merely that the monasteries and churches were sacked by Vikings and Saracens and Magyars, and that bishops and abbots died in battle with the heathen. Even more serious was the internal disintegration due to the exploitation and secularization of the Church by the leaders of the new feudal society. Abbeys and bishoprics were treated in the same way as lay fiefs. They were appropriated by violence; they were bought and sold or used as rewards for successful military adventures (Dawson, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1950. p. 143. These were the Gifford lectures for 1948 and 1949).

The one contemporary book Fr. John seemingly cited for his information is Susan Wood’s The Proprietary Church of the Medieval West (Oxford, 2006). Indeed, his description of this abusive system looks like it came from the second paragraph of her prologue:

That many churches in the early Middle Ages were treated as private property was well known, but Stutz made it a major element in the history of church law and of relations between Church and State . . . . In his and his pupils’ classic view, the proprietary church system . . . crippled the diocesan bishops’ control of clergy, churches, and church property over some five centuries, spread eventually to higher churches, and almost engulfed the church of Rome itself. In the mid-eleventh century it provoked papal resistance, and so underlay the subsequent conflict between Empire and Papacy (Wood, p. 1).

The very next sentence, however, Dr. Woods notes “Much of this has now to be questioned or rejected, especially its application to bishoprics and great monasteries and its centrality in the Gregorian reform; its exemplifying a supposed dominance of ‘Germanic’ over ‘Roman’ ideas; and the tendency to reify it as a system or institution.”

It would seem that Fr. John’s understanding of the proprietary church system, perhaps taken from Dawson, though it was certainly de rigeur for some decades in the historical community, colored his reading of Susan Woods, as her whole treatment exists to reform the description one finds in Christopher Dawson. This has implications for how one then looks at the Investiture Contest and the Gregorian Reforms. In that Fr. John read very few books on this period (he cites several, but ones such as Barraclough’s Medieveal Papacy are not even college-level texts—and Barraclough was a modern historian and almost completely dependent on secondary sources for this work), his thin reading of Woods was not a help.

Fr. John criticized me for faulting him in using Prof. John Baldwin’s work, a short text on scholasticism, as if I wrote that the shortness of the text vitiated its use; but that’s not what I criticized, but rather that Baldwin’s work was not one on that treated at any length Lanfranc’s Eucharistic doctrine, but a brief survey on an entirely different subject (scholasticism). This was hardly the place to go to find information on Lanfranc and the Eucharistic debates of the eleventh century. Baldwin was a brilliant historian, whom I was fortunate enough to speak with, at length, on multiple occasions. The real bulk of Baldwin’s work (5 of his 9 monographs) was on the politics of the universities, particular his wonderful work on Peter the Cantor and the Scholastic world of Paris; and on the political world of medieval France. Both in a phone conversation with Professor Baldwin in 1991 (I had thought of going to Hopkins to study with him, and this was before Gabrielle Spiegel came there as well), and then at a conference on the centenary of Ernst Kantorowicz’s birth at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1995, Baldwin said he was quite innocent of medieval theology. He had studied St. Thomas, but only insofar as the friar pertained to the controversies that surrounded the presence of the Dominicans and Franciscans in Paris, that is, for his work on scholastic culture. Anyone who looks at Prof. Baldwin’s corpus will see that he was rather uninterested in either philosophical or theological questions, but ones of politics and culture. He was a brilliant, excellent historian, far better than I shall ever be, but he was not an historian either of ideas or theology, except perhaps on the idea of justice in the medieval period, but that is not obvious.

Another text that Fr. John cites but which he doesn’t really engage is John Howe’s Before the Gregorian Reform: The Latin Church at the Turn of the First Millenium (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016). I was encouraged to see the early citation of this text, though one used to make a rather passing point. The work was never cited again, at least on the chapter on the Gregorian Reforms, and it’s a sadness for this is the most recent work on the Gregorian reforms that Fr. John used. Why a sadness? Because Fr. John would then have had to wrestle with Howe’s argument that the Gregorians were not revolutionaries, overturning the structures and traditions of the church, but were instead rather conservative, and followed in the train of a long line of reforms that made their efforts not only logical, but nigh on to inevitable, at least if they wished to be faithful to the past (this is very much in opposition to Karl Fr. Morrison’s Tradition and Authority in the Western Church: 330 to 1140. Princeton U. Press, 1969.).

The last of the texts I wish to cite, and perhaps the most important of all, for the use that Fr. John makes of a phrase in the text, one the recurs throughout his book, but which he has sadly misunderstood, is the phrase reformatio in melius (reform for the better, or, reform for a better end), which he takes from Gerhard Ladner’s 1959 study The Idea of Reform. Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers  (Harvard U. Press). There is no footnote but Fr. John does mention Ladner in the text. Fr. John returns to this phrase as a trope that the Church is always seeking to reform for the better, akin to the Reformation notion of semper reformanda. In Fr. John’s telling, the phrase assumes institutional application.

Ladner notes, there are many uses of the idea of reform throughout Church history, and he seemed to want to continue his study of the use of the term in later centuries, and how it had institutional uses. But Ladner is explicit from the beginning of the book that reform, metamorphosis, meant a complete rebirth, a complete transformation of the individual, and its institutional appropriation was only a later application of the original thought. It had to do first and foremost with our transformation into the life suitable for life in God. This begins in this life (shades of St. Nicholas Cabasilas!).

If the idea of reform is made the center of the present book, this is done from the conviction that the belief in man’s reformation toward his original image-likeness to God (reformatio or renovatio ad imaginem Dei) was of central importance for early Christian and mediaeval thought and life. This volume will describe the early history of that conception in the patristic age down to the sixth century. It is hoped to show in later studies that the idea persisted and that its reality went far beyond the purely ideological realm. True, the terminology did not always remain the same; but the key terms of reformatio-renovatio and imago or similitudo Dei were never lost, though their scope was extended and their meaning enriched. A few examples from the Middle Ages will confirm this (p.3).

Thus, when we see St. Augustine take up the term, it had to do with a metamorphosis into something better and greater not just than what we are now, but what we were created as. It was not some mere cosmetic renovation as one would see of a house, as on HGTV, but a complete transformation, metamorphosis as the ancients understood, and transfiguration as the word had been used in the New Testament. Fr. John misses this, either because he too quickly read Ladner, or had taken it from someone who had misread Ladner. While Ladner published in 1959, it is one of those books I highly recommend, especially when thinking about what deification looked like among the Latin fathers.

This is what I meant by poverty.

c. Narratus, bonus et malus
All historians, with the exception of some socio-economic historians, use narrative. A historian’s job is to make sense of the past. Narrative is inescapable in that it links one event to the next in a coherent retelling of the past. This should be done with grace and beauty. History is part of rhetoric, and moral rhetoric at that. It demands imagination, but not the fictive. Grand narratives run the risk, the great risk, of not being faithful to the past, and this I believe is the failing in Fr. John’s books.

He has not done this maliciously, willfully, intentionally, or with any forethought. It’s a simple matter that Fr. John has an idea of the origins of modern secularism. He expands on this in his next volume (not the subject here), though certainly touches on it in the first two.

He seeks to write a narrative that is from a supra-temporal vantage (meta), and to bring us from Pentecost to the present, describing exactly what went wrong with this particular vantage as the prism by which we see all, and as an explanation for all.

Metanarrative has lots of critics, especially among the postmodernists and the poststructuralists (e.g., Lyotard, Foucault), but theirs is not my critique. Mine extends from the pre-modern world, that the life of the intellect is either in conformity to the Word, or in rebellion against it. And to take from Solzhenitsyn, this is not a division of sheep and goats, but a division that runs through the heart of every man. As such, metanarratives lead us to see people as instances or reifications of ideas, instead of people struggling with who they are in the economy of God. Like the metanarrative of Marxism, individuals disappear, leaving just history, or ideas, or structures that then tend to explain individual instances.

Narratives on the other hand look at the actions and words of these people (expressions but not judgments of their struggles) and see how they fit as consequent and cause of other events (which are themselves consequences and causes). The larger the narrative, the more parts to fit in, and thus the problems that can arise.

Along these lines also, metanarratives easily slip into reductionism, wherein events become simple iterations of the assumptions of the metanarrative (or metanarrator). An excellent essay on this phenomena is Fr. Cyril O’Reagan’s Historiographic Sophistications: Did Gnosticism Exist? (Church Life Journal, 2020)

Most of my writing has taken the form of looking at the relations of one or two people with a given idea, or within the confines of a narrow event: the Westminster disputation of 1559, for instance, or the change in political theology among English Catholics between 1559 and 1592, or Calvin’s correspondence with Louis du Tillet in 1536.

I certainly address large swaths of time. I am teaching on the Byzantine empire this coming spring term, after all. How am I going to do that? By treating the empire as a series of institutions and constitutions, the changes within it, its relationship to the Orthodox church, the Islamic world, the Latin West, and its own interior dynamic (the theme system especially).

In this, when I teach students about the forest that was the empire, they have to get a strong grasp of the numerous trees in the forest, the shrubs that are the undergrowth, and the dangers both in the soil and along the edges. There is no empire without Basil II or Michael VIII Palaeologos. They are trees without which that forest wouldn’t exist.


Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon once said that we Orthodox will never be able to talk about theology if we don’t know Latin. I agree with him whole-heartedly. First, because this is part of our patrimony. St. Bede, St. Cuthbert, they are just as much ours as is St. Anthony. How many of us even know who they are, let alone have read them?

Fr. John’s ignorance of Latin (he didn’t need to confess this on his podcast for any reader to know this, e.g., solo ratio and Deus volt! are but two unahappy instances) means that he cannot himself take up the Latin authors except at one remove, reading them through the eyes of other people (much the same way that the Latin’s first read Aristotle was through translations done from the Greek into Arabic, and then into Latin). Theology is difficult enough without reading through other people’s filters and glasses, and real history depends on knowing our subjects as thoroughly as possible. If we don’t empathize with Latin theology (in the Latin) how can we write about it?

Yet for all my admiration and love of the Latin west, I am not a papalist; for me it twists what the content, dynamic, and life of what traditio is. I don’t hold to the filioque. The musing of St. Augustine on the Trinity, were they to remain but analogies of thought in the pages of De Trinitate, are just that. But when made into dogma, so that the Son must be a source and origin of divinity as is the Father is a ruination of Theology. Granted, Rome has been at pains in walking this back over the last century+, but I don’t think making a virtue of a necessity a good way to approach theology. I also reject how Anselm’s thoughts on the atonement work themselves out in later theology, particularly during the nominalist phase of the late middle ages, and especially in the Reformation. Calvin made God’s justice, and not the 2nd person of the Trinity the mediator between God and man, and anyone who looks at The Institutes II.17.1-6 will see this. I also reject the Catholic doctrine of God’s simplicity (I don’t reject the doctrine of the simplicity of God, He is not made up of parts), but how it was articulated, and how this fed into discussions of the Trinity in the late middle ages (cf. Russell Friedman, Medieval Trinitarian Thought from Aquinas to Ockham {Cambridge University Press, 2010}for a good discussion of where this all goes).

Thus the second reason I agree with Fr. Reardon, because I am Orthodox, and happily so; I believe the Orthodox Church is the one true, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, both the Bride of Christ, and His body of which He is the head. I see real problems with Roman Catholicism (the current distress of the post-Vatican II institution aside), and I won’t be able to talk with them if I don’t know their language.

We owe Fr. John thanks for all this work, he has done a lot. But we need to understand what exactly it was that Latin theology was doing when it spoke about the relationship of nature and grace (reason and faith). If we don’t, we are doing neither Orthodox nor the Latins any kindnesses. We are not helping those Catholics who are looking to join the Orthodox Church, and ultimately and I think most especially we are being false to our own patrimony of the use of logic among the Fathers. For those who have questions about this on the Catholic side, I recommend you read, even though papist (and papa) that he was, Benedict XVI’s (Joseph Ratzinger) Regensburg address. It is short, and rather eye-opening. Interestingly enough, one of the key people he cites is none other than the Byzantine scholar-emperor Manuel II Palaeologos. If intellect and its use of reason separates us from the brutes, and is part of the divine gift of the imago Dei, we see that it is not something to be unexercised, but employed, and we need to see that this is not something, mutatis mutandis, that Orthodox have a real beef with Rome about.

That Lanfranc used dialectic should surprise no one, as this is the simple common inheritance of the entire world of Christendom, whether East or West. Dialectic is found throughout the writings of St. Gregory the Theologian, St John of Damascus, St. Basil the Great, and Saint Athanasius. Further, each of these saints borrowed from both Aristotle and Plato, but does this make them Platonists or Aristotelians, or even dialecticians (i.e., rationalists who place reason over faith)? They, even as Lanfranc, used dialectic as part of the liberal arts. Fr. John admits this (p. 152).

Thus, to say that Lanfranc used dialectic is the same as to say he breathed. If we condemn Lanfranc for using dialectics, then we are also condemning The Three Holy Hierarchs, as well as Saint Athanasius, and as well our whole patristic inheritance. Dialectics was part of the liberal arts, and as such a tool used by every Orthodox thinker, east or west (even if we don’t want to number Lanfranc among them).

If we are going to dismiss the use of dialectic, or even Aristotle, in theology, then we have to dismiss great swaths of St. Gregory the Theologian (and his marvelous syllogisms that fill his Orations), St. Athanasius (who used Aristotle’s four causes in his On the Incarnation, and especially when speaking about our material cause as non-existence but our formal cause as the Word of God), St. Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ, replete with syllogisms, or even St. Basil the Great, whose instruction to young men on the use of Greek literature takes directly from Plato’s allegory of the cave that we must look at the reflection of the sun in water before we can look directly at it; and takes from Aristotle’s analogy that the intellect drives the chariot whose horses are the appetites and the will. No one will see these fathers as rationalists for having used Plato and Aristotle. We shouldn’t damn Thomas Aquinas of the same either.


About Gary Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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